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Alien Concepts

The UK’s Independent on Sunday has an interesting article (some would say indictment) on the US healthcare system. Here’s a short excerpt:

They came in their thousands, queuing through the night to secure one of the coveted wristbands offering entry into a strange parallel universe where medical care is a free and basic right and not an expensive luxury. Some of these Americans had walked miles simply to have their blood pressure checked, some had slept in their cars in the hope of getting an eye-test or a mammogram, others had brought their children for immunisations that could end up saving their life.

In the week that Britain’s National Health Service was held aloft by Republicans as an “evil and Orwellian” example of everything that is wrong with free healthcare, these extraordinary scenes in Inglewood, California yesterday provided a sobering reminder of exactly why President Barack Obama is trying to reform the US system.

The LA Forum, the arena that once hosted sell-out Madonna concerts, has been transformed – for eight days only – into a vast field hospital. In America, the offer of free healthcare is so rare, that news of the magical medical kingdom spread rapidly and long lines of prospective patients snaked around the venue for the chance of getting everyday treatments that many British people take for granted.

I think this highlights the differences between the two approaches – I already knew how crap the US healthcare system is, but many Brits don’t. This side of the pond, most complaints against the NHS stem from complacency – there are relatively few Britons old enough to remember what healthcare was like pre-NHS (the NHS is 61 years old) and those there are tend not to complain because they’re the ones most heavily reliant upon it.

The existence of the NHS has meant that, as in most other western nations, Brits see healthcare as a human/civil right – which is evidently not the case in the USA. From our perspective, what’s described sounds like a third-world country, not what’s supposedly the most advanced nation on the planet – there are charities which run similar medical clinics in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean; Mercy Ships and Médecins Sans Frontières are notable examples. How can a nation be advanced when its healthcare system is so backward that around 15% of the population has no healthcare, and relies entirely on third-world style handouts?

One of my favourite films is “My Life Without Me”. It describes a young mother’s reaction to finding out that she has a treatable form of cancer, and her health insurance doesn’t cover the treatment. The film could only ever be made in the USA – because in any other advanced nation she’d get the treatment she needed. In any other western nation she’d live, not die. The idea of dying of a treatable disease because you can’t afford healthcare is completely alien to non-American westerners like me. In the UK, we wouldn’t even have to think about the cost of the treatment – which has a massive effect on stress, and so recovery times. And yet the NHS costs less than half the amount per person the US healthcare system does.

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